It can be a little spooky in Dawson at this time of year – half the town’s bustling summer population has vanished for the winter, the leaves are off the trees, and the comforting presence of a blanket of snow on the ground is still weeks away. Add in the town’s reputation as a haven for gold-rush era ghosts and the spectre of Halloween, and you’ve got a perfect setting for a horror movie.
It’s no wonder then, that Marigold Santos so enjoyed her recent visit to Dodge to launch an exhibition of her work, on display at the ODD Gallery. The Montreal-based artist has a penchant for spooky, sometimes unsettling imagery that’s perfect for a town that celebrates human-toe cocktails, morbid poets, and myriad gruesome ghost stories. In fact, the works that comprise unearthly, uprising – an exhibit Santos created specifically for the ODD Gallery – seem to be made of the same ingredients that go into any good “strange-things-done” tale: the natural and supernatural world, landscape, nostalgia, and myth-making.
Featuring four large-scale, mixed-media canvases (Santos calls them “drawings,” though they read largely as immaculately detailed paintings), unearthly, uprising appears at first to be a macabre collection of work. There is revenant, featuring a head-and-shoulders portrait of an asuang, a vampire/witch figure from Filipino folklore, and hoax, in which disembodied hands float in a murky ether, appearing to sign secret codes to the viewer. Similarly eerie and beautiful are flight, depicting kites either ascending or descending (the artist and the work won’t comment on which), and liminal, a landscape-meets-dreamscape set in what appears to be the Badlands of Alberta.
While both visually satisfying and unsettling on first glance, the works become much richer when informed by Santos’s intent. Born in the Philippines, Santos came to Canada with her family in the late-1980s, an experience she says informs all of her work – she recalls being blown away by the pervasive nature of North American pop culture upon arrival, something she says changed her life. Like many new Canadians, Santos quickly became an omnivorous consumer of all things pop, and the television, movies, books, and commercials of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s became touchstones for a new identity.
“I’m interested in how landscape, both physical and social, shapes memory and our sense of self,” says Santos. “The creation of our identities as a process of negotiation and hybridization.”
As she grew older, Santos returned to her roots – exploring Filipino folklore and traditions through her art, first as an undergrad at the University of Calgary, and then as an MFA student at Concordia.
The asuang – a shape-shifting vampiric creature that can divide itself then make itself whole again – provided a potent metaphor for Santos’s own experiences as a new Canadian. Santos has revisited this figure in numerous exhibitions, and in revenant it appears shrouded in lace and floral clothes.
“I draw a lot on memories of my childhood when I’m creating,” says Santos. “Sometimes I don’t event know until I’m done. Like with revenant, I was like, ‘That floral fabric is familiar…. Oh, I think it’s from the couch we had when I was growing up.’”
Given that Santos draws so much on her early childhood experiences, it’s not surprising to learn that one of her first pop culture loves was horror movies – an affinity that remains today.
“I remember I couldn’t believe how accessible it all was,” she recalls, adding that the macabre nature of some Filipino versions of Catholic rituals may have inured her to gory cinema. “My parents didn’t have a problem with it, I was allowed to watch whatever I wanted, really.”
She was thrilled then, when a trip to the Yukon not only provided confirmation of her “romantic” ideas of the North, but also contact with an audience of kindred spirits.
“I loved my time in Dawson,” Santos enthuses. “The opening night went really well, with close to 50 people in attendance, and I was so glad to be able to meet so many artists in the community. Artists ranging from budding SOVA students, musicians, filmmakers, and various writers. It was also such a pleasure to have an artist talk to such an engaged crowd … I was able to share, compare, and exchange stories of childhood games, and my most favourite, ghost stories…. Lots of those in Dawson, a city that is otherworldly in its own right.”
Unearthly, uprising is at the ODD Gallery until Nov. 1.